November 13, 2022

Article at Emerson College

The VOTES Act makes pandemic-related voting access permanent in Mass.

Photo Credit: Pexel
Photo Credit: Pexel

By Brandon Hill and Skyler Stark-Ragsdale 

Permanent mail-in voting, expanded early in-person voting and registration, electronic voting options and jail-based reforms are among voting access expansions included in the new law.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed the VOTES Act into law last summer, making many pandemic-related changes to voting accessibility permanent as voters approach the midterms.

The new law widened voter access to mail-in voting, expanded in-person voting periods and gave voters twice as much time to register. It also included some changes that won’t go into effect until January 2023, such as automatic voter registration for all eligible voters in the state and increased voting accessibility for incarcerated individuals who are already eligible to vote.

Supporters of the law were encouraged to make pandemic-related changes permanent by the record-breaking turnout of nearly 3.7 million Massachusetts voters in the 2020 presidential election.

Justin Curtis, chief of staff to state Sen. Barry Finegold — who chaired the committee to oversee revisions to the bill between the Massachusetts House and Senate — said in an interview that the passage of the bill is key legislation to improve the state’s democratic process amid restrictive voting measures in other states.

“We talked a lot about why it was so important to expand voting rights and strengthen democratic institutions in Massachusetts,” said Curtis, “at a time when you had voting rights under attack across the country.”

The bill expanded the period for in-person early voting to two weeks before biennial state elections and one week before presidential and state primaries. It also introduced electronic voting options for service members and individuals with disabilities.

However, opponents of the bill worry that expanded voting access could lead to counting errors and an overload for local election officials.

On the matter, State Rep. Bradley H. Jones said, “I think it makes it harder in the sense that we're relying on… a group of people at the local level who haven't necessarily expanded in terms of staff to administer the election.”

Curtis said the increased accessibility should bring out more voters in Massachusetts.

“You know, it's not just Election Day… that we can make it out to the polls,” said Curtis. “It gives voters a lot of opportunity to be able to have their voice heard, which is why we were so excited to get it across the finish line.”

The initial version of the bill called for moving the deadline for voter registration from the previous 20 days before the election to same-day voter registration. In the final version, a deadline of 10 days before the election was agreed upon. MassVOTE, a local voters' rights advocacy group that worked with legislators on the bill, is still fighting for same-day registration.

“We still continue to fight for and same day voter registration, because we've seen that in in other cities and states that have seen the voter registration, increase the participation of people of color as much as 18%,” said Venessa Snow, the education and policy director at MassVOTE, in an interview. “In local races, we had a city councilor in Boston win by one vote, you know. A lot of these races are decided by 50 votes.”

But, Jones said an increase in voter turnout could contribute to unintentional counting errors and prompt public distrust of the democratic process.

“Every time there's a mistake or an error is unintentional, as usually it is, it can feed into increasing mentality out there that something is up with an election. That somebody's trying to fudge the outcome or something like that,” said Jones.

Snow pushed back against the idea that expanded voting access would lead to an increase in fraudulent votes.

“We have plenty of safeguards already in place and very little evidence of voter fraud, especially in Mass.,” she said. “But you see a movement for voter suppression all over the country. I think there are some people dealing with misinformation.”